Saturday, March 9, 2013

BHARATPUR

In the wildlife refuge

We got up early in the morning before breakfast to go to Keladeo National Park in Bharatpur,  a huge bird sanctuary.  We all got on rickshaws and rode through the park to see egrets, ducks, storks, kingfishers, cranes, spoonbills and falcons, as well as deer and wild boars.

After breakfast, some of the group went on a village and farm tour, but I opted to stay at the hotel and get an Ayurvedic massage, which was heavenly.



Wildlife refuge
My room in the palace

In the afternoon we went to Fatepur Sikri, an Islamic fort built by Emperor Akbar.  There is an outdoor area made like a Parcheesi board, where slave girls in colorful outfits were used as game pieces while the emperor and guests would look on from a raised viewing platform.

Fatepur Sikri





We returned to our hotel, where they had a fabulous puppet show for us before dinner.

Friday, March 8, 2013

JAIPUR


I had an up close and personal relationship with India over 40 years ago, when I backpacked around it for two months (during a war, no less!), staying mostly in hostels and living on a dollar a day.  I was interested to see the changes, yet fearful of the in your face impact I remember.  For this reason I chose a "Maharajah" tour, staying in hotels which are former maharajah's palaces.

Indian motorcycle taxis
We left at 6 a.m. and saw dawn breaking as we drove an hour to the airport.   After a two hour flight to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we had lunch at a Marriott Courtyard Hotel.   We could tell it was on the outskirts of town because there were a lot of motorcycle taxis around and they are not allowed in city center.  We had a beautiful Indian buffet lunch before going back to the airport for the 1 12 hour flight to Jaipur.  Our flight was delayed an hour but we finally got there and met our guide.  He took us on a bus through Jaipur, stopping at a wood stamp store and a carpet store for demonstrations.  There were about ten guys rolling out carpets for us to look at and they gave us tea and drinks.  Nobody bought a carpet, which were priced at $250 to $2000.  We later chided our guy for taking us to stores that would probably not appeal to college students, who generally have little money and no home of their own.  He insisted he was not getting a kickback.  I didn't really believe him, but I think he got the message.

Rolling out the carpet 

We got to our hotel, Raj Villas, about 7 p.m.  I don't know if it was originally a palace since it seemed so new and well kept, but it was a fairy tale version of one.  There was a main building with reception, dining, and shops.  The guest rooms were scattered around the extensive grounds.  There was a beautiful swimming pool and lots of sculpture and fountains.  My room had a sunken tub looking out on a private garden.  Dinner was an Indian menu, with a sitar player accompanying the meal.  They had a lot of programs in the daytime, like yoga, chanting, spa treatments, etc., but we left at 7 a.m.


My bathroom

The next day we rode elephants up to the Amber Fort and enjoyed it's stunning views.  We rode elephants up to the top.  We then went back to Jaipur to see the City Palace and Royal Observatory.



Amber Fort


Elephant traffic jam

Snake charmer

It was a 4 hour drive to Laxmi Niwas Hotel, which really is an old Maharajah's Palace.  The rooms are large but more lacking in "luxury items" like air conditioning.  I had a hot shower and ceiling fans, though.  Everything is whitewashed.  We had a buffet dinner in the old throne room.  Afterwards they treated us to an Indian dance show.





Wednesday, March 6, 2013

KOCHI


We have finally arrived in India, probably the most diverse, enchanting, terrifying, dirty, beautiful, colorful country on earth.  Adjectives don't do it justice, because they can't really describe it.  It is really a land of contrasts.  It has amazing architecture, and amazingly awful slums.  Beautiful sunsets, enhanced by air so dirty it hurts to breathe.  Wonderfully open and friendly people, and some of the worst crooks you could imagine.


I started by seeing the city of Kochi (formerly Cochin) in the state of Kerala, an area I had not been in before.  This is where Vasco de Gama landed when he made the first sea voyage from Europe in 1498, thus finding the elusive sea route to the Indies previously sought by Christopher Columbus and others.  The Portuguese were able to establish a colony here but were subsequently kicked out by the Dutch and the British.

Weaving in the Spice Market
My first stop was Matancherry Palace, built by the Portuguese for the Maharajah in 1555.  Jews had established a trading post north of there in Goa 2000 years ago but were being slaughtered by the Portuguese, who brought the Inquisition with them.  The Maharajah protected them by giving them permission to build a synagogue next door to the palace, which still stands and is the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth.  Most of the Jews emigrated to Israel in 1949.  There are only eight left, known as "white Jews," and they own the synagogue, which still functions.  There are about 70 "black Jews," or mixed race descendants, who also attend services there.

Nearby is the Police Museum, which is mostly a display of historical weapons and uniforms used by the local police force.

I went to the nearby spice market and purchased some saffron.  I haven't had my own kitchen in two years and am looking forward to some experimenting.

Next I went to St Francis Church, the oldest European church in India.  My guide said Vasco de Gama died in Goa and his son brought the remains to the church to be buried..  There is a tomb with his name on it. According to Wikipedia, Vasco de Gama did die in India, but his son came and took his remains back to Portugual, where he was buried in style.  An interesting thing about the church is the punkah fans above the rows of seats, with holes in the walls for servants to operate the levers from outside.  The church was changed from Catholic to Anglican in 1800 after the British took control of the area.  In 1997 Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony there to honor 50 years of Indian independence.


Vasco de Gama's grave


St Francis Church with punkahs

The other interesting things I saw were the fishing nets at Fort Cochin.  Apparently Kublai Khan (think Marco Polo) sent fishermen there in the 13th century and the locals still use their system of large nets on a wooden platform.  They call them Chinese fishing nets but I only saw Indians around.